Young people in 1967 enlisted in the Peace Corps for a variety of reasons–some because they yearned to do a good turn for humanity, others because they were looking to dodge the draft. I may be the only one who joined for the money.
In addition to three square meals a day, there was also the prospect of getting my teeth fixed and a new pair of eyeglasses at taxpayer expense. On top of everything else, the snow was knee-high in Salt Lake City and I was freezing. So when the caller asked if I could report to Puerto Rico for training it was a no-brainer. How could I resist?
Soon afterward I found myself on a misty mountaintop high above the village of Arecibo, far removed from the sun splashed beaches of Santurce. Each day brought rain, though of a different sort than what I was accustomed to. It didn’t come and go, it just went on forever. And after you got wet, you never dried out. Your clothes and blankets never dried out. Water for the showers was piped in from Iceland, and the towel you used to “dry” yourself afterward had no effect whatsoever because it was still soaking wet from the day before.
Camp Radley was named in honor of a Peace Corp volunteer who had died in an airplane crash in Colombia, as was Camp Crozier just down the road. Lawrence Radley and David Crozier had been the first Peace Corps volunteers to die in the line of duty.
I was assigned a bunk in Caseta Nueve, which quickly became notorious as the housing unit where the all-male residents opted to pee out the doorway rather than stumble through the darkness and fog to the latrine. As a result, the vegetation all round was dying, as were the pesky mimi bugs, described as a “small native insect that you can’t see.”
My bunkmates were a diverse lot: Robert Reggio from Brooklyn, Al Paas from Michigan, Larry Salkoff from Coral Gables, Florida, Charlie Boss from Santa Barbara, California, Salvador Vazquez from the Bronx. Salkoff was a gifted classical guitarist, Reggio an accomplished drummer. Vazquez also played guitar, and soon we had a pretty good band going. Our de facto leader was the infinitely resourceful, fast-talking New Yorker John Spivak, who reminded me a lot of the character played by George Segal in the movie “King Rat.” Segal was, in fact, John’s brother-in-law.
Our days were spent memorizing bits of Spanish dialogue in preparation for eventual service in Colombia. Much of said dialogue struck me of doubtful utility; that is, until one day when John and I, while hacking our way through the thick underbrush that separated camps Crozier and Radley, came upon a clearing, in the middle of which sat a broken phonograph player.
“Mira,” John announced. “El tocadisco esta descompuesto!”
Times when we weren’t engaged in language and cultural studies were spent socializing at the tienda, which featured a small basketball court and also a sapo game. How shall I describe sapo? Imagine throwing quarters in the direction of a Coca Cola machine. First contestant to toss a quarter into the coin slot wins, and becomes the first person in the history of the game ever to do so. Camp Radley produced no winners, only losers, and as the weeks wore on and multiple multiphasic personality inventory test scores were tabulated, more and more of us slipped into that category.
The Peace Corps had a special name for people like us: deselectees. First hint that you were about to join the ranks of the deselect: you’d show up for breakfast at the comedor and your coffee cup would be missing from its peg. Or else you’d sit down at the table and everyone would immediately scoot to the opposite end.
Somehow I just knew I wouldn’t be going on to Bogota. Instead, I’d be put on the mail stage and trucked back to the Peace Corps office in San Juan, where I’d be issued a voucher good for plane fare back to the states. But first, I was going to hang around Puerto Rico for as long as my money held out, and of course I’d have plenty of company, because just about all of my friends from Caseta Nueve were about to be deselected as well.
John Spivak’s savings ran out first, thanks to his penchant for expensive wine and food. But Charlie Boss, Mike Parsons and I lingered on for weeks. We tres amigos hitchhiked from one end of the island to the other, scoring rides and the occasional handout. Eventually we found ourselves sleeping on the ground, awakening to discover not enough money in our pockets to buy evem a bottle of Coca Cola. The Caribbean sans Coke was unacceptable to me, nor could I embrace the concept of begging for spare change on the mean streets of San Juan. So I boarded a jet plane and flew back to Utah. Meantime, Charlie and Mike, aka Carlos y Miguel, exchanged their tickets for one-way airfare to Venuezela, and for the next two years the penniless pair bummed around South America. Looking back, I somewhat envy them their Coca-Cola-free adventure!
Four years later I wound up marrying a former Peace Corps trainee from Dallas who had also been evicted from the garden—I always tell people Annie and I met through a process of deselection. John “King Rat” Spivak became a successful restaurateur in Delaware. In fact, just about all the former inmates of Camp Radley went on to bigger and better things—everyone, that is, except Salvador Vazquez. Salvador continued on to Bogota, where he completed his training and became a certified PC volunteer. In October, 1968, he was riding in a bus when the driver, speeding and apparently drunk, veered off the road and into a ravine. Seventeen passengers were injured, seven were killed. Among those seven was Salvador Vazquez, age 25, from the Bronx.